One man’s crusade to bring clarity to the Aussie identity
By now, if you have walked the streets of Sydney or Melbourne you would be familiar with the face of a man in turban whose poster is glued in familiar and unfamiliar surroundings. If you have looked closely, notice the word AUSSIE written underneath the photo? The man in question is Monga Khan and the man sticking up the posters of Khan all over Australia is Peter Drew, who is independently on a mission to make him a popular folk hero.
For Drew, the question of who is a real Aussie is a pertinent question today. Khan is not your stereotypical Aussie but in taking him up Drew challenges the assumption of what an Aussie is.
The photo of Khan, says Drew, was taken 100 years ago in Australia. “He was one of thousands of people who applied for exemptions to the White Australia Policy. Cameleers, hawkers and other traders were granted exemptions because their work was essential to Australian’s growing economy. For 70 years they played a crucial role.” And Drew wants to celebrate a part of Australian identity which hasn’t been celebrated enough.
Therefore, the poster of Monga Khan is a project Drew started in the beginning of this year. Titled ‘What is a real Aussie?’, Drew is on a mission: to put up 1000 photographs of Khan around the country. He has already completed putting up about 500 posters in Sydney and Melbourne. “The aim of this project is to turn Monga Khan into an Aussie folk hero and, in doing so, use mythology to embrace our neglected histories and expand Australia’s identity.”
Born in Adelaide, Drew studied psychology and philosophy and started exhibiting paintings and pursuing arts. But it was when he went to study in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2012 that his art turned towards politics and the Australian identity. “Living away from Australia made me think about what it meant to belong and I thought a lot about what I liked about Australia and what I didn’t like. Until then my art had been completely apolitical but then I thought maybe I should use my art for that purpose.”
It was also a time when the Australian federal elections were on and major political parties were promising to stop the boats that carry asylum seekers to Australia. “That seemed absurd from a country of immigrants. So I started making posters. I wanted to have a sense of irony or openness to the posters,” he says, adding, “A lot of political art is very instructive, it’s really about boosting one group and excluding another. But I wanted to do projects or come up with images or slogans that genuinely helped appeal to the middle ground. And so I have been on a journey since then.”
Drew’s current project is a take-off from his first project last year when he installed 1000 posters around the country that carried the slogan “Real Australians Say Welcome”. “The poster was inspired by the often forgotten second verse of the National Anthem that calls upon our ‘courage to combine’. That courage seems strangely absent from Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers,” reflects Drew.
Drew is passionate about turning Monga Khan into a folk hero because he believes the country is missing out on thousands of other amazing lives and their story that make up Australia’s history. “I like the idea of an Aussie folk hero because it allows people to identify with. I want to turn Monga Khan into a folk hero so that mythology becomes a vehicle for history. People sort of fall in love with mythology, it’s a fun thing and then they want to find out all the facts. You need your Robin Hoods, Waltzing Matildas and Ned Kelly but we have to get the rest of it across too.”
So at the heart of Drew’s works is the desire to forge a better identity for Australians. He thinks the term ‘Aussie’ is a throwaway term of what people use. “To say oh he is an Aussie is a way of saying what it shouldn’t really be. It should be something other than that.” Therefore the question Drew asks is: Does Aussie have more to do with the people who wrote the White Australia Policy or does it have more to do with the people who survived it?
“I think history tends to side with the survivors because they just have more interesting stories in a way. Those are the people we want to identify with and it’s a kind of a challenge identifying with them being an Anglo white person. I think it takes a little bit of creativity in order to get the message across.”
Interestingly, when Drew was researching for this project he came across many fascinating stories and it made him realise that although Australia had its White Policy, there were “so many good people who lived good lives and had many friends.”
Why Drew chose Monga Khan was because he wanted to find just an ordinary person who could become a symbol for all sorts of people. Although Drew has tried to be non-descriptive about his exact origin, people have been keen to claim Khan. “That is OK as long as people don’t exclude others,” he says.
Recently Drew had a thankyou message from a man whose background was Mexican. His daughter had taken a photograph of Khan’s poster and sent it to him saying he looked like her grandfather. “It’s kind of fun that all sorts of people can identify with Monga Khan but if you really hammer home his exact origins it can start to exclude people.”
But the fact remains, Monga Khan was born in North India, according to the archives. The Indian community like many others has a long and rich history in Australia, with immigration beginning quite early in its colonial history, according to the Immigration Museum. The earliest Indians came as convicts or as servants of British subjects who had been living in India. At first the numbers of Indian-born immigrants were small but, in the late 19th century, many more arrived searching for work. The 1881 census records 998 people who were born in India but this had grown to over 1700 by 1891.
Many Indian immigrants to Victoria in the late 19th to early 20th centuries sought employment in rural areas as labourers or itinerant hawkers. These hawkers, who came from many other countries too, traversed rural Victoria and other parts of Australia, moving from town to town in their covered wagons. The hawkers sold a diverse range of products, including food, books, pots and pans and jewellery, as well as products from India, such as silks and spices. Many sources indicate that these hawkers provided a lifeline to the rural towns and more isolated farms by providing a large range of products, as well as a diversion from the everyday.
Of course Drew did not go looking for an Indian for his project. “I was looking at exemption to the dictation test which was the main tool of the White Australia policy. Those days if you passed the dictation test, you would be given another one in another language until you failed. It was just this sort of tool. But you could apply for exemption if you had character witnesses and prove that you were going to be of use to the economy.” In these category fell peoples such as Monga Khan or those who were cameleers and hawkers and a lot of Chinese traders.
“I picked Monga Khan because he sort of looks heroic in a way. And I think most people would be interested or surprised that that photo was taken in Australia 100 hundred years ago,” says Drew.
Drew has received an overwhelmingly positive response to his project, an equal response form migrant communities and more white Australians, he says. “It’s been a good balance. That’s great because it is about bringing people together and crossing that divide.”
Drew has also got messages from people from India and Afghanistan thanking him for showing them his history. He understands that for someone coming to Australia, say, from Afghanistan it can be very difficult to belong. “But if you knew you had a proud history of say over 150 years of cameleers and hawkers playing an important role in this country you would feel you have something to be proud of and a reason to belong here. And that’s something that I could help show.”
Drew will be travelling to a few more cities before he completes this project which is crowd funded. “The response was terrific,” he says. The fund exceeded its target and so he is commissioning artists to respond to the project themselves. “One of the people commissioned was a poet who has written a poem from the perspective of Monga Khan. I ask artists to approach it broadly because we are not historians, we are artists.”
With a glue bucket, a heavy set of posters all in one trolley, Drew is on an independent mission to stick more and more posters of Monga Khan. “My posters get taken down eventually – by the weather or they will get cleaned away. But the idea can live on. Last year with the project ‘Real Australian say Welcome’ hundreds of people redesigned it and made their own T-shirts etc. That’s what I want – for people to take the idea and make it their own. That way it has a life beyond the posters. That is what I would like to achieve. With Monga Khan if we can make him into a folk hero that lives on with people and tell stories – that’s the ultimate goal.”
Art can do this, the acceptance of all of us in Australia.
By Indira Laisram